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Collusion between German car makers

The car industry has featured heavily in the news in recent weeks with the announcement of plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2040. Around the same time, news broke that the European Commission had commenced an investigation into potential collusive behaviour between German car makers.

Since the investigation is ongoing, it is not yet clear exactly what the firms are accused of. However, allegations first published in German magazine Der Spiegel claim that since at least the mid 1990s Volkswagen (and subsidiaries Porsche and Audi), Daimler (owner of Mercedes-Benz) and BMW met several times a year. Furthermore, it is alleged the meetings aimed to give the firms an advantage over overseas rivals by:

co-ordinating the development of their vehicles, costs, suppliers and markets for many years, at least since the Nineties, to the present day.

In particular, Der Spiegel claims that the cartel limited the size of the tanks that manufacturers install in cars to hold chemicals that reduce diesel emissions. Smaller tanks then left more room for the car’s sound system.

Limiting the size of these tanks should be seen in the context of the 2015 emissions scandal where it became clear that Volkswagen had programmed its cars to limit the use of these chemicals and cheated in emissions tests. This meant that 11 million cars worldwide produced excess emissions. Whilst other manufacturers have suggested that the cars they produced may also produce excess emissions, Volkswagen has so far been the only firm to admit to breaking the rules so explicitly. However, if the allegations in Der Spiegel turn out to be true, there will be clear evidence that the harm caused was widespread and that illegal communication between firms played a key role in facilitating this. If found guilty, substantial fines will be imposed by the European Commission and several of the firms have already announced plans to put in place measures to reduce emissions.

It is not clear how the competition authorities discovered the cartel. However, it has been suggested that incriminating documents were uncovered during a raid of Volkswagen’s offices as part of an investigation into a separate steel cartel. It seems that Volkswagen and Daimler are now cooperating with the investigation, presumably hoping to reduce the penalties they could face. It has also been reported that Daimler’s role in the investigation will have serious implications for future cooperation with BMW, including a project to develop charging sites for electric cars. It will be extremely interesting to see what the investigation uncovers and what the future ramifications for the car industry are.

Articles
European officials probe claims of huge German car cartel CNN Money, Mark Thompson (23/7/17)
Automotive corruption: German manufacturer collusion could spell bankruptcy Shout out UK, Christopher Sharp (4/8/17)
Germany’s auto industry is built on collusion Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky (31/7/17)
BMW reassured top staff about cartel allegations: sources Reuters, Edward Taylor (4/8/17)

Questions

  1. What are the consequences of the coordination between German car makers likely to have been for consumers? What about for rival car manufacturers?
  2. Are there circumstances in which coordination between car makers might be beneficial for society?
  3. How do you think the German car industry will be affected by these allegations going forward?

New tools to enhance cartel detection

Price fixing agreements between firms are one of the most serious breaches of competition law. Therefore, if detected, the firms involved face substantial fines (see here for an example), plus there is also the potential for jail sentences and director disqualification for participants. However, due to their secretive nature and the need for hard evidence of communication between firms, it is difficult for competition authorities to detect cartel activity.

In order to assist detection, competition authorities offer leniency programmes that guarantee full immunity from fines to the first participant to come forward and blow the whistle on the cartel. This has become a key way in which competition authorities detect cartels. Recently, competition authorities have introduced a number of new tools to try to enhance cartel detection.

First, the European Commission launched an online tool to make it easier for cartels to be reported to them. This tool allows anonymous two-way communication in the form of text messages between a whistle blower and the Commission. The Commissioner in charge of competition policy, Margrethe Vestager, stated that:

If people are concerned by business practices that they think are wrong, they can help put things right. Inside knowledge can be a powerful tool to help the Commission uncover cartels and other anti-competitive practices. With our new tool it is possible to provide information, while maintaining anonymity. Information can contribute to the success of our investigations quickly and more efficiently to the benefit of consumers and the EU’s economy as a whole.

Second, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched an online and social media campaign to raise awareness of what is illegal under competition law and to encourage illegal activity to be reported to them. The CMA stated that:

Cartels are both harmful and illegal, and the consequences of breaking the law are extremely serious. That is why we are launching this campaign – to help people understand what cartel activity looks like and how to report it so we can take action.

This campaign is on the back of the CMA’s own research which found that less that 25% of the businesses they surveyed believed that they knew competition law well. Furthermore, the CMA is now offering a reward of up to £100,000 and guaranteed anonymity to individuals who provide them with information.

It will be fascinating to see the extent to which these new tools are used and whether they aid the competition authorities in detecting and prosecuting cartel behaviour.

Articles
CMA launches crackdown on cartels as illegal activity rises The Telegraph, Bradley Gerrard (20/03/17)
European Commission launches new anonymous whistleblower tool, but who would use it? Competition Policy Blog, Andreas Stephan (21/03/17)
CMA launches campaign to crackdown on cartels Insider Media Limited, Karishma Patel (21/03/17)

Questions

  1. Why do you think leniency programmes are a key way in which competition authorities detect cartels?
  2. Who do you think is most likely to blow the whistle on a cartel (see the article above by A.Stephan)?
  3. Why is it worrying that so few businesses appear to know competition law well?
  4. Which of the two tools do you think is most likely to enhance cartel detection? Explain why.

Might changes to the format of the football World Cup facilitate tacit collusion?

Earlier this week FIFA, the world governing body of football, announced plans to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026. It is fair to say that this has been met with mixed reactions, in part due to the politics and money involved. However, for an economist one particularly interesting question is how the change will affect the incentives of the teams taking part in the competition.

As a result of the change in the first stage of the competition, teams will be play the two other teams in their group. The best two teams in the group will then progress to the next round with the worst team going home. This is in contrast to the current format where the best two teams from a group of four go through to the next round.

Currently, in the final round of group matches all four of the teams in the group play simultaneously. However, an immediate implication of the new format is that this will no longer be the case. Instead, one of the teams will have finished their group matches before the other two teams play each other. This could have important implications for the incentives of the teams involved. To see this we can recall a very famous match played under similar circumstances between West Germany and Austria at the 1982 World Cup.

The results of the earlier group games meant that if West Germany beat Austria by one or two goals to nil both teams would progress to the next round. Any other result would mean that Algeria progressed at the expense of one of these two teams. The way in which the match played out was that West Germany scored early on and much of the rest of the game descended into farce. Both teams refused to attack or tackle their opponents, as they had no incentive to so (see here for some clips of the action, or lack of!).

There is no evidence to suggest that West Germany and Austria had come to a formal agreement to do this. Instead, the two teams appear to have simply had a mutual understanding that refraining from competing would be beneficial for both of them.

This is exactly what economists refer to as tacit collusion – a mutual understanding that refraining from competition and keeping prices high benefits all firms in the market. Much like the fans who had to sit through the farce of a game (you can hear the frustration of the crowd in the video clip linked to above), the end result is harm to consumers who have to pay the higher prices or go without the product.

For this reason governments use competition policy to try to stop situations arising in markets that make the possibility of tacit collusion more likely. One way in which this is done is by preventing mergers in markets where tacit collusion appears possible and would be facilitated by the reduction in the number of firms as a result of the merger. The equivalent for the World Cup would be preventing a change in the format of the competition.

An alternative approach is to tinker with the rules of the game in order to make collusion harder. FIFA seems to have some awareness of the possibility of doing this as it is suggesting that it may require all tied games to extra-time and then a penalty shoot-out in order to determine a winner. Clearly, this would go at least some way to alleviating concerns about tacit collusion in the final group matches because coordinating on a draw would no longer be possible. In a similar fashion, competition authorities can also intervene in markets to change the rules of the game (see for example the recent intervention in the UK cement industry).

Therefore, more generally, the World Cup example highlights the fact that variations in the structure of markets and the rules of the game can have significant effects on firms’ incentives and this can have important consequences for market outcomes. It will certainly be fascinating to see what rules are imposed for the 2026 World Cup and how the teams taking part respond.

Articles
World Cup: Fifa to expand competition to 48 teams after vote BBC News (10/1/17)
How will a 48-team World Cup work? Fifa’s plan for 2026 explained The Guardian, Paul MacInnes (10/1/17)
The Disgrace of Gijón and the 48-team FIFA World Cup Mike or the Don (12/1/17)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between tacit collusion and a cartel?
  2. Why does a reduction in the number of firms in a market make collusion easier?
  3. What other factors make collusion more likely?
  4. How does competition policy try to prevent the different forms of collusion?

Ramifications from the recent dispute between Tesco and Unilever

An earlier post on this site described a recent row between Tesco and Unilever that erupted when Unilever attempted to raise the prices it charges Tesco for its products. Unilever justified this because its costs have increased as a result of the UK currency depreciation following the Brexit decision.

It also appears that more general concerns that the fall in the value of sterling would lead to higher retail prices were prevalent around the time that the Tesco Unilever dispute came to light. Former Sainsbury’s boss, Justin King, made clear that British shoppers should be prepared for higher prices. He also said that:

Retailers’ margins are already squeezed. So there is no room to absorb input price pressures and costs will need to be passed on. But no one wants to be the first to break cover. No business wants to be the first to blame Brexit for a rise in prices. But once someone does, there will be a flood of companies because they will all be suffering.

It is interesting to consider further why the Tesco and Unilever case was the first to make the headlines and why their dispute was resolved so quickly. In addition, what are the more general implications for the retail prices consumers will have to pay?

Arguably, Unilever saw itself as having a strong hand in negotiations with Tesco because its product portfolio includes a wide variety of must-stock brands, including Pot Noodles, Marmite and Persil, that are found in 98% of UK households..

Unilever has been criticised for using the currency devaluation as an excuse to justify charging Tesco more, since most of its products are made in the UK. However, Unilever was quick to point outthat commodities it uses in the manufacture of products are priced in US dollars, so the currency devaluation can still affect the cost of products that it manufactures in the UK. In addition, Unilever’s chief financial officer, Graeme Pitkethly, insisted that price increases due to rising costs were a normal part of doing business:

We are taking price increases in the UK. That is a normal devaluation-led cycle.

On the other hand, even if the cost increases faced by Unilever are genuine, it is interesting to speculate whether it would have been so quick to adjust its prices downwards in response to a currency appreciation. After all, a commonly observed phenomenon across a range of markets is ‘rockets and feathers’ pricing behaviour i.e. prices going up from a cost increase more quickly than they go down following an equivalent cost decrease.

Compared to Unilever, some other suppliers are likely to have less bargaining power – in particular, those competing in highly fragmented markets and those producing less branded products. In such markets the suppliers may be forced to accept cost increases. For example, almost 50% of butter and cheese consumed in the UK comes from milk sourced from EU markets. Protecting such suppliers is one of the key roles of the Grocery code of conduct that the UK competition agency has put in place.

From Tesco’s point of view it will have benefited from good publicity by doing its best to protect consumers from price hikes. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:

Retailers are firmly on the side of consumers in negotiating with suppliers and improving efficiencies in the supply chain to control the inflationary pressure that is building through the devaluation of the pound.

However, it is also clear that Tesco had its own motives for resisting increased costs for Unilever’s products. In such situations both supplier and retailer should be keen to avoid a situation where they both impose their own substantial mark-ups at each stage of the supply chain. It is well established that this creates a double mark-up and not only harms consumers, but also the supplier and retailer themselves. Instead, the firms have an incentive to use more complex contractual arrangements to solve the problem. For example, suppliers may pay slotting allowances to get a place on the retailers’ shelves in exchange for lower retail mark-ups.

It has also been claimed that cutthroat competition in the supermarket industry, especially from discounter retailers Aldi and Lidl, made Tesco particularly keen to prevent price rises. Some arguments suggest that these discounters will be best placed to benefit from the currency devaluation as they sell more own brands, have a limited range, the leanest supply chains and benefit from substantial economies of scale. On the other hand, they source more of their products from abroad and it has been suggested that:

A fall in sterling will push prices up for everyone who sources products from Europe, but Aldi and Lidl will be affected more than most.

One prediction suggests that the overall impact of the currency depreciation on food prices will be an increase of around 3%. This may be particularly worrisome given concerns that the impact will fall most heavily on benefit claimants and other low-income households.

Outside of the food industry, Mike Rake, the chairman of BT, has highlighted the fact that:

Imported mobile phones and broadband home hubs were already 10% more expensive and the cost would have to be passed on to consumers in the near future.

It is therefore clear that the currency devaluation has the potential to create substantial tensions in the supply-chain agreements across a range of markets. The impact on the firms involved and on consumers will depend upon a wide range of factors, including the competitiveness of the markets, the nature of the firms involved and their bargaining power. Furthermore, evidence from an earlier currency depreciation in Latin America makes clear that the price elasticity of demand will be another factor that determines the impact price rises have.

Finally, it is also worth noting that a potential flip side of the currency depreciation is a boost for UK exports. However, it has been suggested that the manufacturing potential to take advantage of this in the UK is limited. In addition, even the manufacturing that does take place, for example in the car industry, often relies on components imported from abroad.

Articles
The Brexiteers’ Marmite conspiracy theories exposed their utter ignorance of how markets really work Independent, Ben Chu (16/10/16)
Tesco price dispute sends Unilever brand perceptions tumbling Marketing Week, Leonie Roderick (17/10/16)
Unilever and Tesco both benefit from their price row, but Brexit will bring more pain Marketing Week, Mark Ritson (19/10/16)
Why the Tesco v Unilever feud was good for British business campaign, Helen Edwards (20/10/16)

Questions

  1. What are some of the factors that affect a supplier’s bargaining power?
  2. How might the discount retailers respond to the currency devaluation?
  3. Use the figures from Latin America in the article cited above to calculate the price elasticity of demand.
  4. Explain why the price elasticity of demand is an important determinant of the effect of a price rise.
  5. Can you think of other examples of markets that may be particularly prone to price rises following a currency depreciation?

Consolidation amongst the high-street bookies

This time last year bookmakers Ladbrokes and Coral announced their intention to merge. This was closely followed by a merger between Betfair and Paddy Power. This wave of consolidation appears to have been partly motivated by the rise of online gambling, stricter regulation and increased taxation.

The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) commenced an initial investigation into the Ladbrokes-Coral merger in late 2015 and, at the request of the merging parties, agreed to fast track the case to a detailed phase 2 investigation.

Despite the growth in the online market, the CMA’s investigation recognised the continued importance of high-street betting shops:

Although online betting has grown substantially in recent years, the evidence we’ve seen confirms that a significant proportion of customers still choose to bet in shops – and many will continue to do so after the merger.

The CMA identified almost 650 local markets where it believed there would be a substantial lessening of competition. It concluded that this could have both local and national effects:

Discounts and offers of free bets to individual customers are 2 of the ways betting shops respond to local competition which could be threatened by the merger. Such a widespread reduction in competition at the local level could also worsen those elements that are set centrally, such as odds and betting limits.

Therefore, earlier this week the CMA announced that before it is prepared to clear the merger, the parties must sell around 350 stores in order to preserve competition in the problem markets (many of these overlap so the number of store sales required is less than the number of problem markets). This divestment represents around 10% of the total number of stores currently owned by the two merging parties. It appears that rivals Betfred and Boylesports, plus a number of private equity investors, are already interested in purchasing the stores.

This may also not be the last consolidation in the industry with the struggling leading bookmaker William Hill apparently attracting merger interest from rival 888 in combination with a casino and bingo hall operator.

Articles
BHA warns CMA over Coral-Ladbrokes merger Racing Post, Bill Barber (7/7/16)
Ladbrokes-Gala Coral must sell 350-400 shops to clear merger BBC, (26/7/16)
William Hill is lukewarm on ambitious three-way merger deal The Telegraph, Ben Martin (25/7/16)

Questions

  1. Why might the merging parties in this case have been so keen to fast track the case to phase 2?
  2. What are the key factors in defining the market in this case? How do you think these would have affected the decision?
  3. Are there arguments that wider social issues in addition to the effect on competition should be taken into account when considering mergers in this market?
  4. Which of the potential purchasers of the divested stores do you think might be best for competition?
  5. How do you think this market will evolve in the future?

Tax avoidance as a rationale for merger and acquisition

Evidence of widespread tax avoidance has featured heavily in the news recently. Furthermore, recent developments also suggest that avoiding taxes has become an important motivation for merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. For example, Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant that producers Viagra, has for a while been looking to expand through M&A. Following a failed attempt to merge with the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in 2014, it instead agreed late last year to merge with a company called Allergan. This was set to be the largest healthcare merger ever, worth over £100bn.

What is key about Allergan is that, whilst it is run from the USA, it is legally registered as being based in Ireland. It has been strongly argued that the key motivation for the merger was tax avoidance with Pfizer’s strategy described in this way:

They look for a likely partner based in a country with a lower corporate tax regime and suggest a merger. When the merger goes through, the company based in the US moves its HQ – but not the bulk of its operations – to the low-tax jurisdiction, where it books the bulk of its profits. At a stroke, the company’s tax bill is cut.

This practice is sometimes referred to as an inversion. It has been suggested that over the past five years around 40 completed mergers have been motivated by similar objectives.

However, policy makers, in particular in the USA, where corporation tax is high, have increasingly become aware of the practice. President Obama recently made clear that:

If corporations are paying less tax, only one of two things can happen. The US will have less to spend on schools, roads and public health, or taxes will have to be raised on the country’s middle class.

In 2014 some tightening of the tax rules took place, but with limited effect. Then, earlier this month President Obama implemented a series of new rules to attempt to prevent the practice. He stressed that these new rules would help to deter companies from taking advantage of:

one of the most insidious tax loopholes out there, fleeing the country just to get out of paying their taxes.

Almost immediately the Pfizer-Allegan merger was abandoned and Pfizer was required to pay a break-up fee of $150m to Allegran. The parties involved were far from happy and the chief executive of Allegran stated that:

For the rules to be changed after the game has been played is a bit un-American.

However, a spokesman for the White House responded that:

I think it is difficult to have a lot of patience for an American C.E.O. trying to execute a complicated financial transaction to avoid paying taxes in America, talking about what it means to be a good citizen of the United States.

As has been highlighted, the decision to immediately abandon the merger provides a clear indication that the business case and potential synergies arising from combining the two companies were far less important than the benefits from tax avoidance.

Where does the abandoned merger leave Pfizer? One option will be to consider alternative mergers. Perhaps reflecting this possibility, the share prices of foreign rivals such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline increased following the announcement that the Allegran deal had been abandoned. However, an alternative under serious consideration appears to be the opposite strategy of shrinking Pfizer’s operations. It has been argued that this would allow the company to be become more focused.

It remains to be seen in which direction Pfizer will go. However, what this example clearly illustrates is the impact changes in regulatory policy can have on firms’ strategic decisions.

Articles
Collapse of $160bn Pfizer and Allergan merger shocks corporate US Financial Times, Barney Jopson, David Crow, James Fontanella-Khan and Arash Massoudi (6/4/16)
It’s off: the end of Pfizer’s $160 billion Allergan merger The Atlantic, Krishnadev Calamur (6/4/16)
Pfizer and Allergan terminate $160bn merger following US tax crack-down The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (6/4/16)

Questions

  1. Who do you think will be the big winners and losers from the merger being abandoned?
  2. Why do you think break-up fees are used in merger deals?
  3. What are the pros and cons for Pfizer of continuing to pursue M&As rather than downsizing?
  4. Are there any alternative strategies it might consider?

Interesting times in communications markets

There have been a number of recent developments in communications markets that may significantly alter the competitive landscape. First, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has provisionally cleared BT to takeover the EE mobile phone network. The deal will allow BT to re-establish itself as a mobile network provider, having previously owned O2 until it was sold in 2005. The CMA said that:

They operate largely in separate areas with BT strong in supplying fixed communications services (voice, broadband and pay TV), EE strong in supplying mobile communications services, and limited overlap between them in both categories of service.

BT will therefore be in a better position to compete with rivals such as Virgin Media who were early movers in offering. Second, O2 itself (currently owned by Telefónica) is the subject of a takeover bid from Hutchinson Whampoa who already owns the mobile network Three. Because the companies meet their turnover criteria, this deal is being investigated by the European Commission (EC) and the signs don’t look good. If it goes ahead, it would create the largest mobile operator in the UK and leave just three main players in the market. The EC is concerned that the merger would lead to higher prices, reduced innovation and lower investment in networks. Previously, considerable consolidation in telecommunications markets across Europe has been allowed. However, recent evidence, including the prevention of a similar deal in Denmark, suggests the EC is starting to take a tougher stance.

If we compare the two proposed takeovers, it is clear that the O2–Three merger raises more concerns for the mobile communications market because they are both already established network providers. However, it is increasingly questionable whether looking at this market in isolation is appropriate. As communication services become increasingly intertwined and quad-play competition becomes more prevalent, a wider perspective becomes more appropriate. Once this is taken, the BT–EE deal may raise different, but still important, concerns.

Finally, the UK’s communications regulator, OFCOM, is currently undertaking a review of the whole telecommunications market. It is evident that their review will recognise the increased connections between communications markets as they have made clear that they will:

examine converging media services – offered over different platforms, or as a ‘bundle’ by the same operator. For example, telecoms services are increasingly sold to consumers in the form of bundles, sometimes with broadcasting content; this can offer consumer benefits, but may also present risks to competition.

One particular concern appears to be BT’s internet broadband network, Openreach. This follows complaints from competitors such as BSkyB who pay to use BT’s network. Their concerns include long installation times for their customers and BT’s lack of investment in the network. One possibility being considered is breaking up BT with the forced sale of its broadband network.

It will be fascinating to see how these communications markets develop over time.

BT takeover of EE given provisional clearance by competition watchdog The Guardian, Jasper Jackson (28/10/15)
Ofcom casts doubt on O2/Three merger BBC News, Chris Johnston (08/10/15)
BT and Openreach broadband service could be split in Ofcom review The Guardian, John Plunkett (16/07/15)

Questions

  1. What are the key features of communications markets? Explain how these markets have developed over the last few decades.
  2. What are the pros and cons for consumers of being able to buy a quad-play bundle of services?
  3. How do you think firms that are currently focused on providing mobile phone services will need to change their strategies in the future?
  4. Why is BT in a powerful position as one of the only owners of a broadband network?
  5. Instead of forcing BT to sell its broadband network, what other solutions might there be?

Merger set to create a colossal global brewery

After initial resistance, the brewer SAB Miller last week agreed to a merger with Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev). The merging parties own over 400 brands between them. These include Budweiser, Stella Artois and Beck’s, which are owned by AB InBev, and Peroni and Grolsch by SAB Miller. Furthermore, they are currently the number one and two firms in the market respectively. If the merger goes ahead the new entity would control almost one third of global beer production.

This merger represents the continuation of AB InBev’s aggressive expansion plans through mergers and acquisitions as it follows its merger with Interbrew in 2004 and with InBev in 2008. It seems that one key attraction of a merger with SAB Miller is its dominant position in rapidly growing African markets.

A second motivation for the merger appears to be an attempt to counter the rise of small independent craft beer producers. For example, in the USA craft beer’s share of the market has grown from 5 to 11% since 2011. It has been suggested that the leading breweries combining forces represents one of several strategies being used to try to counter the threat of craft breweries. Additional strategies include creating their own craft products that are marketed as independant products and attempting to buy-up craft beer producers. For example, in 2011 AB InBev purchased the Goose Island brand.

Commenting on the planned merger between SAB Miller and AB InBev, a spokesman for the Campaign for Real Ale group expressed concern that:

independent beers may find it harder to get space in pubs and supermarkets because of the increased market presence of AB InBev.

Given the market positions of SAB Miller and AB InBev, it is likely that their merger will face considerable scrutiny by competition agencies in a number of jurisdictions. In fact it has been reported that plans have already been set in motion to sell SAB Miller’s interests in the USA to try to placate potential concerns from competition agencies in the USA and China.

Interestingly, SAB Miller has also protected itself by negotiating a clause that requires AB InBev to pay it $3bn if the deal falls through, for example on competition grounds. It remains to be seen what conditions competition authorities will require before the merger can go ahead and it is even possible they will try to completely block the deal.

Why beer drinkers lose in the SABMiller-AB InBev merger Fortune, John Colley (13/10/15)
Can craft beer survive AB InBev? The Budweiser maker’s acquisitions are unsettling the craft movement Bloomberg Business, Devin Leonard (25/06/15)

Questions

  1. How important do you think it is to consumers who a particular brand of beer is produced by?
  2. How serious a threat do you think independent craft beer producers are to the leading breweries?
  3. Outline some of the factors competition agencies will look at when they consider the merger between SAB Miller and AB InBev.
  4. Why might AB InBev have been willing to agree to pay a fee to SAB Miller in the event of the merger falling through?

The student’s dilemma

A professor in the USA recently posed an interesting dilemma to students taking his psychology exam. At the end of the exam students were provided with a bonus question in order to gain extra credit. All they had to do was decided whether they would like two or six additional marks adding on to their final score. The twist was that if more than 10% of the class opted for an additional six marks then everyone would get nothing added on!

The professor had placed the students in a prisoner’s dilemma scenario. To see this consider an individual student weighing up which option to choose; if more than 90% of the class chose two additional marks, then this student is better off choosing six additional marks. Whereas if more than 90% of the class chose six additional marks, then this student is indifferent between the two options (the student will get no additional marks regardless of their choice). It follows that choosing six additional marks is a weakly dominant strategy.

In a similar fashion, in the classic prisoners setting keeping quiet is collectively better, however, each criminal has a strong individual incentive to confess. Likewise, in oligopoly markets the interdependence between firms results in a tension between cooperation and competition. Firms collectively benefit from keeping prices high, but an individual firm has an incentive to undercut its rivals and steal a large share of the market. A strong prediction when self-interested participants play the prisoner’s dilemma game just once and choose their strategies independently is therefore that the prisoners will confess to the crime and that firms will set low prices.

So did the US professor end up giving away many bonus marks? No, about 20% of the class opted for six additional marks and as a result all the students ended up with no extra marks. In fact, the professor claims to have been running the same experiment for the previous seven years and only once has he ended up giving away any bonus marks. On the one hand, this result is consistent with what is predicted in the prisoner’s dilemma game. However, running contrary to this is the fact that around 80% of the students opted for just two additional marks. It would certainly be interesting to see what would happen if in future years the professor relaxed the threshold above which all students get no extra marks.

UMD ‘tragedy of the commons’ tweet goes viral The Baltimore Sun, Quinn Kelley (09/07/15)
A professor tested the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ on his students by bribing them with extra credit points Tech Insider, Will Haskell (17/07/15)

Questions

  1. Draw the payoff matrix for the student’s dilemma.
  2. What are some of the possible explanations for around 80% of the class choosing two extra marks?
  3. How do you think the outcome of the game might have changed if students were allowed to communicate with each other before making their choice on the number of additional marks to ask for?
  4. How do you think student choices would change if the threshold above which all students get no extra marks was varied?

Here comes Apple Music (closely watched by the competition authorities)

Last week saw the launch of Apple’s new music streaming service. This will clearly provide serious competition for the existing music streaming providers such as Spotify and Tidal. One important difference is that whilst Spotify offers a free version to listeners funded by advertising revenue, all Apple Music users will be required to pay a monthly subscription charge. However, Apple will allow listeners a free three-month trial of its service.

Initially Apple intended not to pay artists royalties during this trial period. However, it soon reversed this plan when the pop-star Taylor Swift wrote a blog post criticising Apple for this and threatening to withhold her most recent album.

The negotiations between Apple and the record labels are also facing considerable scrutiny from the competition authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. They seem particularly concerned that Apple may have conspired with or pressured labels to withdraw their support for rival streaming services such as Spotify that offer free versions to consumers. Although not clear, it has been suggested that the European Commission’s initial probe into this may have been initiated by a complaint from a company offering such a free version of its service.

On the other hand, there has also been considerable criticism of free music services such as Spotify. One of the cofounders of the Beats music streaming service, which was subsequently acquired by Apple, has argued that the free business model does not properly value recorded music. Likewise, Taylor Swift removed her entire back catalogue from Spotify, and the leading record label, Universal, is applying pressure on Spotify to change its business model. It is currently unclear whether Apple has been directly responsible for Universal’s standpoint. What is clear is that Apple’s entry will shake-up this market and the identity and business model of the future market leader is at stake.

Streaming sets off a painful debate in the music industry Financial Times, Jonathan Ford (22/03/15)
Apple’s new music service will push paid subscriptions, with free samples re/code, Dawn Chmielewski and Peter Kafka (08/05/15)
Taylor Swift is fighting the wrong part of the music industry Financial Times, Jonathan Ford (05/07/15)
Here’s what happens to your $10 after you pay for a month of Apple music re/code, Peter Kafka (15/06/15)

Questions

  1. What are the key features of the music streaming service market?
  2. What are the pros and cons of Spotify’s business model?
  3. Why might the views on free streaming services differ between small and large artists and labels?
  4. How do you think the music streaming market might develop in the future?